A rose blooms, a garden’s history is uncovered, and history is dug up in ‘Rooted in History Program’

“Rooted in History” is the theme of a Nichi Bei Foundation Films of Remembrance program featuring three short documentary films focusing on a blooming rose, a Japanese garden and the literal digging up of history.

Here’s a preview of the films:

‘Amache Rose’ (2022, 29 min.) by Billy Kanaly
At the beginning of Billy Kanaly’s documentary film “Amache Rose,” former Nisei incarceree Minoru Tonai describes what the Colorado concentration camp really was: “It was a prison,” says Tonai. “It’s very important for people to understand that Amache was a prison.”

A prison that was out in the middle of a desert, where the conditions and sand were so bad that nothing could grow out there. It was wasteland. It was “the badlands of America.”

Until Japanese Americans showed up and used their skills and knowledge and grew something out of nothing. Until 80 years passed and a rose Japanese Americans planted all of a sudden bloomed on the grounds of Amache in 2021, the same year Amache was designated as a National Historic Site.

Was this a coincidence or were greater forces at play?

Colorado historians featured in the film aren’t sure, but one thing they do know is this: In order to endure their unjust incarceration and to make life more bearable, Japanese Americans built gardens, grew flowers and made them bloom.

“Amache Rose” shows how they did it.

‘Hakone Gardens and Executive Order 9066’ (2022, 22 min.) by Curt Fukuda

James Sasaki at Hakone Gardens in “Hakone Gardens and Executive Order 9066.” photo courtesy of Curt Fukuda

Prior to World War II, James Sasaki was the gardener and caretaker of Hakone Gardens, a lavish estate and Japanese garden located in Saratoga, Calif.

It was there that Sasaki and his family lived and worked until they were forcibly removed and shipped off to Heart Mountain, Wyo. with other Japanese Americans from Santa Clara County.

In “Hakone Gardens and Executive Order 9066,” director Curt Fukuda tells the story of Sasaki and his family, and how Hakone Gardens was protected during the war when so many other Japanese gardens across the country were either vandalized or destroyed by war’s end.

Fukuda believes this story — among many other stories about the Japanese American incarceration — is one that still needs to be told.

“Each story is a shared experience that enriches one’s understanding of our heritage and appeals to our compassion for all people, knowing that racism can never be an acceptable behavior,” said Fukuda.

In working with historians Connie Young Yu and Ann Waltonsmith of the Hakone Foundation, Fukuda discovered that the forced relocation not only affected Sasaki and his family, but continues to touch the members of the Hakone Foundation.

Together, they decided to make this film to preserve the stories of the Garden’s exhibition, and to achieve a larger goal as well.

“With the surge of anti-Asian violence and xenophobia in America, we felt now was the time to show a chapter in American history that must never be forgotten or repeated.”

“Sonzai” (2021, 32 min.) by Barre Fong
Like most former Japantowns throughout the West Coast, you would never know that Santa Barbara once had a thriving Nihonmachi just by looking at what little remains of it today. But in “Sonzai,” we see how a determined group of archaeologists led by Koji Lau-Ozawa and former Nihonmachi residents work together to uncover and literally dig up the truth that Japanese Americans had buried just below the surface.

Because what they buried — Japanese ceramic dishes, bowls and many other Japanese artifacts — proved that Japanese Americans did indeed exist and called Santa Barbara home. But sadly, everything they buried remained buried — until now.

“My goal as a filmmaker has always been to tell stories for people whose voices have been ignored or erased,” said Barre Fong, the film’s director and a grandson of Chinese immigrants. “Archeology ties in so well with my goals because it gives an audience definitive proof that people and cultures existed despite history’s efforts to erase them. Koji’s project in Santa Barbara is fascinating because of the complete destruction of the Nihonmachi paired with the existence of a comprehensive, but largely unstudied, collection of artifacts.”

Through his film, Fong hopes to inspire others to uncover their own stories.

“Despite the destruction of property and the nearly complete erasure of culture, the voices still remain strong and engaged with the community,” he said. “I always hope that my work inspires others to record their own family histories — it’s so easy with modern-day smartphones.”

Fong is looking forward to screening his film at Films of Remembrance.

“I like to say that the film doesn’t truly exist until there’s an audience,” said Fong. “I enjoy watching and listening to reactions from different parts of the film. I especially enjoy Q-and-A sessions at screenings and I hope the audience comes with challenging questions and discussion.”

The “Rooted in History Program” will screen Feb. 25 at 2:15 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki 8 at 1881 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, and Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2:45 p.m. at the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church at 640 N. Fifth St. in San Jose’s Japantown. It will also be available online from Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. through March 12 at 11:59 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit www.filmsofremembrance.org.

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